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‘All of us were downtrodden’: Local chaplain recounts attack on Pentagon 20 years later

Remembering 9/11

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — It’s been nearly 20 years since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks that killed thousands of Americans.

Retired U.S. Air Force Col. Monsignor Carlo Montecalvo, who also used to work for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Providence, remembers that day as if it were yesterday.

“There are certain moments that are burned into your memory, and 9/11 is one of those moments for me,” he said.

Montecalvo, who at the time was chief of personnel for the U.S. Air Force Chaplain Corps, said he was on a retreat with other clergy members when they were all ordered back to their posts in Washington, D.C.

“I first reported to [Joint Base Anacostia-Bolling],” Montecalvo said. “Just the security to enter that base was unbelievable.”

“Every car was searched, they put mirrors underneath all of our cars, and we were led on base,” he continued.

When asked whether they were fearful of another attack, Montecalvo said absolutely.

“They were afraid. They didn’t know what was going to happen,” Montecalvo said, adding that all of the nearby waterways were closed off.

“What struck me the most was there was no traffic,” Montecalvo recalled. “There was no traffic on any of those rivers, only patrol boats. They were afraid of the vulnerability of those three military sites: Fort Leslie McNair, the U.S. Coast Guard and the Washington Navy Yard.”

Montecalvo said vehicle traffic outside the city was gridlocked for miles and it took him a while to get there, but once inside, the streets were deserted.

“There was a silence, and the only thing you heard was helicopters,” he said. “Military helicopters going from [Joint Base Andrews] to the Pentagon, to the White House.”

Montecalvo said the smell of smoke pouring from the Pentagon was unbearable at times.

“You could see the Pentagon burning and you could smell the Pentagon burning,” he recalled. “That’s because, what they once thought was a leak of water was thousands of gallons of fuel that was burning when that plane impacted the Pentagon.”

He said it was a tough day not only for him, but also for his fellow chaplains.

“All of us were downtrodden,” Montecalvo said. “We couldn’t believe that the Pentagon, which we would consider the mothership because all orders went from there, was attacked.”

“How could a plane come in and hit the Pentagon?” he added. “We were just incredulous that this was going on in our country.”

That morning, the entire mission of the U.S. Air Force Chaplains Corps changed, according to Montecalvo.

“Our main focus became deploying chaplains and their assistants in support of President Bush’s War on Terror,” he explained.

Montecalvo said that while the day was somber, everyone he ran into was motivated to put an end to terrorism once and for all.

“The people that I have met who were inside the building, I think adrenaline kicked in, and I didn’t meet anyone who said, ‘I’m going to give up on life,'” Montecalvo said. “I met many people who said, ‘we’re going to rededicate our commitment to fighting this War on Terror that is brand new and we know nothing about.'”

“The people I met doubled down on their commitment to first learn about terrorism, understand how it could develop in people’s lives, and what we could do to combat it,” he continued. “It’s different from the lessons we learned in Vietnam, it’s different from the preparing for a war against China or the Soviet Union, so we had to come up with a whole new educational skill to try and understand what the new enemy was that the United States was going to face.”

When asked whether he believed the attacks were rooted in hatred, Montecalvo said it’s not that simple.

“People that were willing to take their own life for a cause … how do you combat that?” Montecalvo asked. “God doesn’t cause evil in our world, but he permits evil to exist in our world. If God did not allow evil to exist, how then can we say God allows only good to exist in our world?”

“God created us all with a fundamental option in our life, and it’s up to us to choose either good or evil,” he added. “It’s a daily challenge with each one of us.”

Copyright 2021 Nexstar Media Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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